When “The Conners” returned in mid-August after a long pandemic delay, John Goodman was in no doubt that any precautionary measure had been taken. But his heart still fluttered a little when it was time to finally get to work.
“The moment before the first mask came out, I was holding my breath,” said the 68-year-old actor who plays Patriarch Dan Conner in the ABC sitcom.
Sara Gilbert, who plays a role as Dan’s daughter Darlene, was also apprehensive, although as an executive producer she was very aware of the measures the show is taking to protect everyone. The Los Angeles set is patrolled by two Covid surveillance monitors, and the actors are tested five times a week, with everyone else getting tested at least three times a week.
When the coronavirus pandemic intensified in March, it forced Hollywood to shut down production for several months. Most shows that were interrupted by the pandemic were back on set with coronavirus protocols in September, though some did not survive the break – including ABC’s “Stumptown”, Netflix’s “GLOW” and Showtime’s “On Becoming a God in Central Florida,” which all had planned new seasons or were on their way, were canceled by their network.
Those who returned to production had a choice to make: Should they continue where they left off and resume pandemic-free storytelling? Or should they deal with coronavirus and its disorders in their narratives?
For “The Conners”, who from the earliest days as “Roseanne” has dealt with everyday difficulties such as depression, divorce and job loss, it was never even an issue.
“We have always tried to represent families with blue collars, middle class,” Gilbert said. “Pretending this is not happening seems out of touch.”
“Life and death stories are familiar territory for us,” she added. (The show’s original matriarch, Roseanne Conner, was killed via an opioid overdose after Roseanne Barr was fired for comparing a former Obama adviser to a monkey on Twitter. The show’s title was subsequently changed from “Roseanne” to “The Conners.”)
When the series returns on Wednesday for its third season, viewers will see the family struggling with the same issues as the rest of the country: Dan is losing the family home. His sister-in-law, Jackie (Laurie Metcalf), tries to keep the family restaurant alive by making deliveries on her bike (complete with a dazzling neon yellow helmet, gloves and face mask). Darlene and her boyfriend, Ben (Jay R. Ferguson), are wondering if they should close their startup magazine. Dan’s eldest daughter, Becky (Lecy Goranson), navigates back to her undocumented husband, Emilio (Rene Rosado), who takes care of her baby while hiding from immigration authorities.
Of course, it’s hard to avoid incorporating the pandemic when it seeps into every aspect of life on the set. Like all other recurring series, “The Conners”, led by showrunner Bruce Helford, and executive producers Dave Caplan and Bruce Rasmussen, has had to radically reconfigure almost every element of its production for pandemic safety.
Before the cast and crew set foot on stage, they passed two temperature checks, completed a symptom questionnaire and passed a Covid test within at least the last two days. Hair and makeup are done with masks and visors – Gilbert said she even finishes the area around the mouth. Props are cleaned between each shot and the show is filmed without an audience and with a limited crew member.
And enforcement, Gilbert said, is strict. “You can’t eat or drink on stage,” she said. Not even water. You have to go up to your dressing room. ”
But to treat the approx. 350 weekly tests and installing upgrades like disinfection stations and HEPA filters do not come cheap, Helford said.
“It’s good in the six numbers, further, to do this,” he said. “We had to cut holes in the wall for better ventilation and install all AC systems plus the constant cleaning.” More than two months before filming, the show has yet to see a positive test.
Gilbert said the most difficult on-set restriction to remember is the six-foot rule. “Writers tend to just go over and run an idea of each other,” she said. “But now we must remember ‘SIX FEET!'”
Helford said they tried to be a good example for viewers at home. “Characters can pull their masks down if it’s a scene with someone they live with,” he said. “But if they’re out in the workplace and around people, they keep their face shields on.”
Goodman said it can not be an advantage not to have spectators on stage while he is exhaling. “We need to maintain the amount of energy the audience naturally delivers,” he said. “But it’s honestly easier to get time for things when you don’t have people to laugh at them.”
Gilbert said the series will not dwell on the darkest parts of the pandemic – “People get it on the news every day,” she said – but that the show, which is currently underway, will reflect real-world events. The second episode of the season airs on October 28, six nights before Election Day and three nights before Halloween. She said Conners will celebrate their favorite holiday with some trick-or-treating – and that politics might come up.
“But it’s not through the lens of ‘I’m for this guy!’,” She said. “It’s ‘How is what’s going on affecting my family financially?'”
The authors also drew their personal experiences pointing to the new season, Caplan said. He, Helford and Rasmussen “all come from working-class families with low to middle incomes,” Caplan said. “So even though the stories are not exactly ours all the time, they are emotionally charged and honest.”
Helford said they wanted to highlight the struggles of small business owners through Jackie’s fight to save his restaurant, Lanford Lunch Box, as well as counter the increased anxiety that the pandemic has created among children. “Mark, the youngest boy, is certainly the worst bothered by this,” he said, referring to Darlene’s son (Ames McNamara). “It’s him standing outside the door controlling everyone’s temperature and making everyone crazy.”
Other pandemic-focused programs, such as the Freeform series “Love in the Time of Corona,” starring Leslie Odom Jr. starring and his wife Nicolette Robinson as spouses navigating life during the pandemic, and HBO’s “Coastal Elites,” a series of satirical monologues, have received mixed reviews.
“The most remarkable thing about most of them is that they were finished at all,” wrote James Poniewozik, the chief television critic for The New York Times, in a recent review of pandemic shows. “But none of them had to maintain the approach for an entire season.”
But Gilbert believes that “The Conners” can serve as a counter-programming to a news cycle that highlights increasing numbers of cases and political stances. “There is so much fear and anxiety,” she said. “But we’re looking at how the pandemic is affecting this family, and humor is definitely a part of that.”
Some of the moments that resonated with the actors were unexpected. Goranson, who has lived alone in Los Angeles since March, said a scene in the third episode turned out to be surprisingly emotional.
“Becky is in quarantine with her family, and I could not,” she said. “But on stage, she says something about being alone, and it was almost confessed because it was so true to what I had experienced.”
Goranson’s mother died in January, and she said her family has not been able to hold a gathering for her. “One thing my mother told me before she died was ‘So little other than humans,'” she said. “And that seems like a cruel irony right now, because I’ve not been around anyone I love since she said that.”
It is unclear how long the pandemic will infect Conners’ fictional town of Lanford, Ill., Just as it is uncertain how long masks and social distance will remain the norm in America. But Goodman said he was trying to stay optimistic after all.
“It’s just another damn thing we have to deal with,” he said. “I’m excited we’re capable of doing a show at all.”